From vinyl to CDs, the country music legend keeps on singin’
Any fan of music knows the name Merle Haggard. Even the casual listener will hear echoes of Haggard on the radio today.
Haggard’s music – songs that tell the story of his life – has influenced country and rock since the 1960s.
On Feb. 10, fans have the chance of a lifetime to see him perform live at the Cheyenne Civic Center.
A few of Haggard’s 40 No. 1 hits include: “Branded Man,” “Mama Tried,” “Okie From Muskogee,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” “My Favorite Memory,” “Fugitive,” “Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Legend of Bonnie and Clyde.”
His friends and collaborators have ranged from Willie Nelson, George Jones and Conway Twitty, just to name a few.
He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.
Late last year, Haggard was battling lung cancer and had a lemon-sized tumor removed from his right lung.
Haggard took time from his schedule to talk via the phone with us about his health, music career, his famous friends, his brand new double CD project, how he feels about the contemporary country music scene, “American Idol” and being called a legend.
Q: Why did you decide to tour after you had your lung operation? “Well, the lung operation left me in better health than I was before.
Haggard: “It was a matter of recuperating over the injury of the surgery. I feel a lot better than I did probably five years prior to surgery.
“I didn’t know I had the problem, you know, so I don’t have a cough and my lungs they just, in your lung capacity you have three lobes on right side and two on the left, on the top lobe on my right side had a suspended tumor hanging from it. Like a fruit from a tree and it wasn’t attached to anything.
“They went in and found that they were able to get it and there was no chemo or radiation, or anything like that, your lung expands and fills in where it’s taken out, so I’m almost back to full capacity of air, which I haven’t had for a few years.
“I’m singing better than I was before the surgery, yes.”
Q: What was the scariest part about your lung operation?
Haggard: “Getting the nerve to do it.
“In some countries they use it as torture. They hang you up and pull lungs out the side of your chest.
“This is much the same: They have to cut your rib bone, take out a piece of your ribs, underneath the scapula, (on) your backside. They lift that up. It’s very gory. They go inside and take the part of the lung that they wanted out and sew up the rest with metal clamps and it’s very painful. The first all of thirty days to six weeks you’re in dire need of Morphine and Percocet and all of that …
“I’m all free of it now. I still have some pain but not much.”
Q: Do you ever regret smoking?
Haggard: “I smoked Camels for 50 years, but they said it wasn’t smoking related. The doctors said the rest of my lungs were pink, but it’s something I’m not going to do. I won’t smoke anything. I quit in 1992.”
Q: What was it like being friends with Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty and Johnny Cash?
Haggard: “We were all in the same business, and had the same likes and dislikes. It was exciting and fun to be able to know people like that.”
Q. Did they influence your music at all?
Haggard: “Certainly, yeah, they influenced everybody. They influenced the Beatles.”
Q. What are some of your good memories with them?
Haggard: “Johnny Cash and I were the closest friends, and he and I were friends for 35 years, so there’s many memories.”
Q. Do you have a favorite memory with Johnny Cash?
Haggard: “God, I wouldn’t know where to start … it would be a whole book.”
Q: How did music become “The angel on your shoulder” when you were younger and doing petty crimes to rebel?
Haggard: “I’ve been leaning on music since I was about 14 or 16 years old. I had gotten in some trouble with the law because I didn’t have a father. My mother was working, and I was lonely, and it was more fun in jail than it was outside.”
Q: How did you get your first guitar?
Haggard: “My mother bought it for me. She bought me a cheap, inexpensive guitar. I think it cost $65, which was a lot of money in 1950 or so. That was my first good guitar.”
Q: Do you still have it?
Haggard: “No, I hocked that many years ago,” he said and laughed.
Q: Is that a good memory of yours, that your mom helped you with your music?
Haggard: “Yeah, she did all she could. She was a lady that was left as a widow and happened to have a good education.
“She got a job as a book keeper for a meat company, but it was awfully lonely at home with nobody but her. She was working all of the time, and I got into trouble.”
Q: Do you ever regret getting into trouble now?
Haggard: “You know, it was like the military in some ways. You have to learn rules and regulations and laws and honesty and things of that nature.
“Some people learn it in the military, and I learned it in institutions. When I finished my ‘schooling,’ which was when I was 23, I understood the law and straightened up and never went back.
“People want to know about the prison years, 41 number one songs are second place to what happened in prison. I don’t know why that is. So many people go to jail now, that it shouldn’t be so unusual.”
Q: What was it like when you reached your 40th number one song?
Haggard: “At that point, it seemed like it would never end. We had 100 songs in the top 100. We had 63 songs in the top three. The number ones, we had like nine in a row. Then a number two, and another nine and a number two, so, we were consistently in the top charters for about almost 30 years.”
Q: Are you still working on new songs?
Haggard: “Continuously. That’s me, my life, that’s what I do, always.”
Q: Care to share about songs that you’re working on?
Haggard: “I’m just finishing a double CD that will be available in Wal-Mart.
“One CD is all on-the-road humor. The other is a new studio CD.
(Haggard’s publicist said fans can look for this project in the future, but there isn’t a set release date right now.)
Q: What do you think about the way country music has changed?
Haggard: “I don’t care for it.
“It’s so perfect, and there are no surprises. Everything is going to be perfect, and I can’t even hear someone breathe. That’s just my opinion. The electronic digital computer, anyone can do a record, nowadays. You don’t have to stay in key or they’ll put you in key.
“You don’t really know who can sing or can’t until you see them in person, then you’re like, ‘Oh my God, what happened?’
“It’s kind of sad in some ways. I don’t hear any songs, or anything that’s spectacular like you used to hear.
“Like where’s the ‘Ring of Fire,’ where’s ‘The Gambler,’ or the ‘Okie From Muskogee,’ where’s those songs that didn’t go wrong for 40 years. I don’t hear those.”
Q: Do you pay attention to any of the newer country artists, and if you do, do you have one that you like?
Haggard: “You have to get past the belly buttons and the videos and somewhere in there there’s some kind of music.
“I’m still a fan of the realists, the Johnny Cashes, or the Hank Williams. I can’t find anyone who sings better than those guys.
“If you really want to hear some music those people still top everybody that’s doing it now, I think.
“Who’s going to be Elvis? Who is going to be better than Nat King Cole, or Frank Sinatra, or Bing Crosby?
“Who are the girls you can name that are better than the girls in the past?
“Carrie Underwear, or Underwood, I mean. I like her, but where’s the songs?”
Q: What do you think about ‘American Idol?’
Haggard: “I don’t give it much thought – it doesn’t entertain me. I guess I’m stuck in the past.”
Q: What has been one of the most memorable moments in your life or your career?
Haggard: “Probably music-wise, the 1970s, the night I won everything, the biggest.
“I believe it was 1970 – I won six BMI awards, four CMA (Country Music Association) awards, Entertainer of the Year, Album of the Year and there were two more, but I’m not sure what they were.”
According to the CMA’s official Web site, in 1970 Haggard was nominated for nine Awards, which was a record at the time, and won four: Entertainer of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year, Album of the Year for “Okie From Muskogee” and Single of the Year for “Okie From Muskogee.”
Q: What did that feel like that day?
Haggard: “It’s overwhelming to have all that bestowed upon you … It’s kind of like a dream come true.”
Q. What was your speech like?
Haggard: “We had a long list of people to thank. I thanked everyone to the president to the plumber that worked on my sink.”
Q: Over the past 71 years, what do you feel you learned about life?
Haggard: “God, I learned a lot. I started out with no knowledge at all. I made my first appearance on a stage when I was 16 years old in Lefty Frizzell’s band, all the way where it is now.
“I got to be friends with all the famous people that you could name.
“Let me say something about these new kids, they’re getting it done and doing it well, maybe I just don’t understand.”
Q: Why do you like writing “story songs?”
Haggard: “Writing songs about love is the oldest story in song writing, and to write something about something that happened in your life is a sound bite of your past.
“It’s interesting to people to know that I had a family, a mother, a dad, a sister and a brother. I have kids and I write songs about all of them. People seem to identify because they have the same, you know.”
Q: Do you have a favorite song that you like performing out of all of yours?
Haggard: “I do a song that’s called, ‘Footlights’ that describes me better than those songs. It wasn’t a big hit or anything, but it always goes well in live performances.”
Q: How does it describe you better than any of your other songs?
Haggard: “I live the kind of life that most men only dream of.
“I make my living writing songs and singing them. ‘I’m 41 years old/ and I ain’t got no place to go when it’s over.’
“It’s kind of cool.”
Q: How do you feel about being called a legend?
Haggard: “It’s just another way to describe an old act.
“It’s a compliment and appreciated, but I think it’s over used.”
“I don’t know, it’s just a phrase and a description. Sometimes, it may be correct, when it’s referred to yourself and you look away, you don’t want to drink too much bath water.
“You got to keep your mind on things that are real and not what people think. Nothing really changes. I’m still trying to do it. It’s harder and harder and gets harder with every year.”